Q: Justin you grew up on a dairy farm outside of Minneapolis, but went to North Dakota State University to study computers and then had a career in tech. What compelled you to return to farming?
A: Growing up on a farm seems to do one of two things to people: they are either done with it or can’t wait to figure out how to get back. I quickly learned that sitting in an office was not for me and I wanted to go back. On one of our trips home to visit my wife’s parents, her dad talked about slowing down and wanting some help around the farm. It didn’t take long for the idea to set in and the plans to move home were in motion. My wife and I were both excited to get out of the city, and I knew that I much rather be working for myself. It ended up being an easy decision to make.
Q: Tell us a little more about your farm.
A: I started out farming about 500 acres of corn and soybeans in 2013 with my wife and her parents. We spent a lot of time in the early years improving the grain facilities, cleaning up a farm site and building and remodeling a couple houses for me and our family members. Then we decided to add beef cattle. Now, my three boys all seem to like being on the farm and having the cows and a few chickens around (until it is time to do chores!) and they are eager to get involved. I can already see how they each are drawn to work on a different part of the farm. It is getting to be a huge load off my mind and very enjoyable to be able to work with them and see them grow in experience and knowledge of farming.
Q: What got you interested in Kernza? What are the challenges and opportunities?
A: I got interested in Kernza when I saw the planting/harvest schedule and dual use of the crop. With our side business picking up steam, I was looking for something that I didn’t have to put as much time into, but could still get the grain and some feed for the cows. I have since discovered the grazing benefits and that has really improved the prospects for me. I planted 25 acres of Kernza in the fall of 2019 and am still working on all the ways to use it most efficiently. I am big on precision ag and using everything we have in the most efficient manner. I also farm in an area where irrigation is really important and water conservation is huge for us. The root structure of Kernza and its ability to collect extra moisture is a big plus.
I do have some challenges. I am used to corn and soybeans that have a different grain weight and local markets, so the combining and transportation of Kernza have been tricky for me. I’ve also had trouble getting the combine settings just right to get a good clean tank sample and have spent lots of time cleaning straw out of the combine. Each pass I feel like I am getting closer, but I still don’t have it dialed in just right yet. I am non-organic and the markets aren't quite there yet either, so I’ve delayed planting more. Learning patience with the Kernza marketing has been a challenge for me.
Q: Speaking of side businesses, it’s probably not surprising, given your interest in computers and tech, that you started In Front Ag. Tell us about your company, and the problems you want to solve for farmers.
A: I started In Front Ag in the winter of 2018. I was looking to make some upgrades to an autosteer system on one of my tractors and couldn’t find anybody local that was really able to help. With a background in tech and tech support, it was an easy adjustment for me to go from inventory and business systems support to GPS and autosteer support. I had also been looking to add land to the farming operation, but seemed to be 2nd on a lot of lists for getting the ground. I knew that if I was going to grow the farm it was going to have to happen a different way. I got a start with having good used equipment ready to go and the knowledge on how to run it. I have since added to the inventory, renovated a building on the farm to be the office and added a few product lines so we can cover the whole list of precision ag needs on the farm. Right now, it is mainly just me running the business but we are right on the verge of adding a mechanic/support person to help with all the installs and troubleshooting needs. We now carry multiple brands of equipment for autosteer, planting, fertilizer controls, sprayer controls and yield mapping. I am working on becoming a one stop shop for all your precision ag needs when it comes to equipment, maps and advice. There are a few steps to go and everything is moving in the right direction.
Q: How does your work in tech inform your work on the farm, and how does your work on the farm inform In Front Ag?
A: I am really glad I had the opportunity to spend some time in tech support. With farming moving more and more to being tech-based, I really feel like I have the skills and am ready for what is coming. Putting all of the aspects of Kernza, farming, tech and In Front Ag together has introduced me to many new people, processes and ideas that I don’t think I would have been able to put together on my own. Every conversation leads to a learning opportunity and has led to a few new things on my own farm. I recently had a conversation with a hay farmer from Washington state who was amazed by what I considered day-to-day run of the mill operations. To him it was a vast new world of farming that he wanted to learn more about. Putting it all together has helped keep me open to ideas and kept me from taking too much for granted.
Q: What is your favorite spot on the farm?
A:The favorite spot on the farm is the front porch area on a nice night with the boys playing in the yard. We have a couple swinging benches where my wife and I like to relax and catch up on the day. Frequently, those relaxing moments turn into playing some games with the kids, and may include helping one of the boys get revenge on another for taking advantage of their age difference. The boys are 19 months, 6 and 9 years old right now, so the games sometimes get a little one-sided!
Q: What would you like the PPGC to accomplish in the next few years?
A:I am a little disappointed in myself that I have not been able to be more involved in the PPGC. I have attended the on-line meetings and tried to be a part of it, but just really hasn’t worked out for the in-person events that are happening now. So, to set a goal for the whole organization is tough for me. I would say that it is for me to be more involved. I hope that we can get the market for Kernza to take off, but see some hurdles that need to get taken care of before it can really get going.